Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act V, Scene 1

Act V contains only two scenes, but in them are some of the most concentrated action and thematic development of the play. The development of the theme of suicide and retribution in or after death is collapsed into a darkly comic one by the gravediggers, whose “black humor” approach to the subject contrasts sharply with Hamlet’s earnest and serious “to be or not to be” speech.

Yorick’s skull provides one of the only physically tangible symbols in the play. It provides a concrete point at which Hamlet confronts death, and while he is holding the skull, he is content to continue philosophizing in much the same way he has done throughout the play. However, when Ophelia’s funeral procession appears, this intellectualization of death gives way to a furious grief and passion, leading to another rash action: this time, he leaps into the grave and gets into a fight with Laertes – literally “over Ophelia’s dead body.”

Once again, the audience is confronted with the question: did Hamlet actually love Ophelia? The fact that it is her death that causes him to lose control seems to indicate he did. Was he overcome by guilt at being the indirect cause of her death? If so, why does he fail to take responsibility for it except in the final scene?

In this scene, we see Hamlet and Laertes, two very different characters, taking essentially the same action: they both leap into Ophelia’s grave overcome with their love and grief. In Laertes’ case, the action brings to the fore the motif of incest that began with his overly-sexually-charged advice to his sister in Act I. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes obviously has genuine love for his sister, but whether it is sexual in nature or simply brotherly affection it is difficult to say.

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